New research has exposed the widespread prevalence of sexually inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, with nearly a third of employees experiencing such incidents.

However, the study also highlights that a significant number of victims are reluctant to report these incidents due to fear of repercussions.

The research, commissioned by The Barrister Group, sheds light on the distressing reality of toxic workplace cultures that continue to persist despite increased awareness and movements like #MeToo.

These findings echo concerns raised in recent high-profile celebrity scandals.

What did the report investigate?

A comprehensive survey involving over 2,000 UK workers, equally divided between genders, uncovered that 29 percent had fallen victim to sexually inappropriate behaviour perpetrated by colleagues. The breakdown showed that 31 percent of women and 26 percent of men were affected, with a shocking 69 percent reporting that the perpetrators were individuals in more senior positions.

One concerning revelation was that nearly half (48%) of those who experienced such behaviour chose not to report it. Among those who did, many recounted feeling uncomfortable, isolated, accused of overreacting, and, shockingly, 12 percent even felt compelled to seek new employment.

Several reasons emerged for the reluctance to report, including fears of not being believed, not being taken seriously, or even being blamed for the incidents themselves.

A wider conversation is needed

Dr. Anna Loutfi, an employment barrister and a part of The Barrister Group, expressed disappointment over the persistence of sexual harassment in workplaces. She commented, “For many of us, the #MeToo movement felt like a watershed moment, which started a wider conversation about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, not just for women and not just at work. The fact that sexual harassment is still so prevalent in the workplace is hugely disappointing.”

Recent celebrity scandals may have heightened public awareness of inappropriate behavior, but, as Dr. Loutfi pointed out, many people continue to endure such treatment due to fears of being perceived as the problem rather than the victim.

Worryingly, the research also revealed that, despite most respondents claiming knowledge of what constitutes inappropriate behaviour, a third did not view actions such as touching someone’s breasts, slapping their buttocks, or making sexual comments about their appearance as wrong. Women were found to be more likely than men to identify these behaviours as inappropriate.

A blind eye…

Moreover, 34 percent of workers believed that their superiors turned a blind eye to such behaviour, while 23 percent described their workplace culture as sexist or misogynistic. Shockingly, less than two-thirds (61%) reported that their employers had implemented policies to address sexually inappropriate behaviour.

Dr. Loutfi emphasised, “It is surprising that so many people still don’t recognise that certain behaviours are wrong. Employers should have clear policies in place. There is a distinction between what is unlawful and what is inappropriate, but both are unacceptable in the workplace. Employers have a legal duty of care, and employees have a right to expect that they will not be made to feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or violated in the course of their work.”

These research findings underscore the urgent need for a culture of openness and transparency in workplaces, where employees feel empowered to report inappropriate behaviour and trust that they will receive support and that necessary action will be taken. Addressing this issue is paramount to ensuring that all individuals can work in environments free from harassment and intimidation.

 

 

 

 

Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.